If I’m being honest, I’m still not totally comfortable using “whose” for inanimate objects. I’m 100% a rephraser in that respect, and will rewrite the sentence to give it a more natural flow. However, a few of you wrote asking about using “which” in place of “whose”, and I wanted to address those questions and figure out if “which” in that case was a proper use of the word.

whose vs. which

The sample phrase, for the sake of simplicity: “I placed the iPhone whose screen was broken in the bin.”

Several commenters asked if it wouldn’t be correct to write, “I placed the iPhone which screen was broken in the bin.”

Here’s why my grammatical and editorial ear thinks that’s wrong.

Why You Can’t Use “Which” to Replace “Whose”

As mentioned in the previous entry regarding whose/of which, of which can be substituted if the sentence is rephrased (e.g., “I placed the iPhone, the screen of which was broken, in the bin.”). But simply replacing “whose” with “which” doesn’t work.

Why? Because “which” isn’t necessarily a possessive noun.

“Whose” defines some sort of ownership, but “which” by itself doesn’t. Dictionary.com has several definitions for “which” and “whose”, but not until “which” adds prepositions does it become a possessive (e.g. of which, on which). On its own, “which” is more of a questioning word that needs additional specification to determine exactly what you’re talking about.

“Of Which” vs. “Whose”

In the previous example, you would be correct if you wrote, “I placed the iPhone, the screen of which was broken, in the bin.”

You would also be correct in writing, “I placed the iPhone whose screen was broken in the bin.”

But you would not be correct in simply changing out which for whose because which by itself does not function as a possessive noun, while whose on its own does indicate possession. You need that additional preposition to make things more specific.

Personally, I’d much rather rewrite the sentence than go back and forth about “which” and “whose” on inanimate objects. It’s generally the best way to avoid debate, and pretty universally accepted as an okay way of putting together a sentence.

PRACTICE

Let’s put this lesson to practice by first writing five sentences using “whose” (e.g. “I placed the iPhone whose screen was broken in the bin.” and then rewriting those five sentences so they don’t sound weird (e.g. “I place the iPhone with the broken screen in the bin.”)

When you’ve written your five “whose” sentences and five rewritten sentences, share them in the comments section. Then, make sure to comment on a few practices by your fellow writers to let them know if they got it right!

Good luck!

Liz Bureman
Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she’s not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.